When one arrived in Bend, in preparation to run in the 2013 Dion Snowshoe National Championships (on March 16 and 17, 2013) at Mount Bachelor in Oregon, they were left to wonder – how is it so warm here (over 60 degrees Fahrenheit) and where is all the snow? The snow had all melted in and around the town of Bend (at around 3,400 feet above sea level) but it still existed in abundance over 5,000 feet in altitude where the race course was.
Because of the very warm temperatures though, it left most of the course a melted icecap with a soft consistency underneath during Friday’s course preview, and people were postholing everywhere on the course and falling in multiple spots (the author fell over a dozen times during the 5K course preview). It looked to be the most dangerous snowshoe race course one has ever seen, thanks mainly to a very steep and long downhill section where falling was almost unavoidable due it being such a slippery and vertical-like drop.
Thanks to cold temperatures overnight on Friday that fell to around 20F, the course hardened and postholing was thankfully removed from the course’s menu for Saturday. Temperatures for race day were closer to a traditional snowshoe competition’s weather, starting at around 30F with a cool breeze and warming up throughout the day. A lot of racers wore the lightest winter clothing they had for their main event, and clothing options would have been really interesting had it been in the 50- to 60-degree range like it was earlier in the week.
The Citizens 5K and Juniors event was the first to break in the course for the day at 9 a.m., and then the Seniors Men 10-kilometer championship event broke from the line at 10 a.m. The men (and the rising temperatures) had the race course pretty chewed up for the ladies, when the Senior Women started at 11:30 a.m.
Because the 10K race was two loops, supporters and enthusiasts were able to see the nation’s best snowshoers three times – at the start, at the midway point and at the finish. Just about a quarter-mile into the race it already changed from a wide path to a single-track trek, in which approximately 90 percent of the course consisted of one-lane traffic. Not long after the start (roughly a half-mile in), a slight incline at the start of the race became an all-out climb – nearly for a quarter-mile racers had to ascend 300 feet – from 5,400 feet to 5,700 feet in just a short distance, where the majority of racers had to walk two to four minutes straight just to conserve their energy for later. The heart rate soared and breaths became more labored until racers reached the top – the running could then continue as normal, except a few minutes later there was another small uphill section that some may have walked up to a fallen evergreen tree that blocked the path unless one walked around the roots or made a big jump over the trunk.
Just short of halfway onto the course (around 1.5 miles in), came the most treacherous descent that most snowshoe racers have ever seen – a 300-foot vertical drop that twisted around down the mountain and it was very slippery due the warm temperatures and friction seen from all the snowshoe activity and also being open to the sun. One had to almost be an expert snowboarder to not fall on this downhill stretch, as strong core balance was needed to stay upright as the backs of snowshoes became like sleds sliding downward. It became more efficient to fall and slide on your backside and keep the slide going until you needed to change direction (or to avoid taking out the competitor ahead of you by braking snowshoes into the snow instead of into their legs). One definitely felt a sense of peril as their momentum was taking them much faster down the hill than what was comfortable – but as long as you didn’t get hurt, the experience was also a sense of fun and adventure. Those taking pictures near the bottom of this hazardous hill definitely got some interesting photos of racers trying hard to stay on course and not fall awkwardly or take a faceplant.
Racers were helped not only by the fact that the crowd gave them a little surge of adrenaline at the halfway point, but also by the call-outs on what place they were in, to refocus on their race goals and try to move up on that spot as much as they could in the second half of the race. Doing the course twice also helped in knowing what was in store for the second half – that 300-foot climb early on again and eventually the same drop on the other side. Those racers that smartly got out conservative and had a modest first loop were able to make big gains on their competitors on the second loop – even despite the majority of the course being single-track, passing was still an option in enough spots.
The steep downhill section was even riskier the second time around, as foot traffic made it even more slippery and chewed up and further warmed by the sun. It seemed like one spent a lot more time going uphill than downhill on this course thanks to the downhills being such quick drop-offs. The race finished up on a slight incline during the last half-mile, testing the endurance of even the best snowshoers as energy reserves were tiring. The exciting finish wrapped around an oval hairpin turn around the crowd and into a quick downhill sprint to the line. The great Mark Elmore was calling out every racer’s numbers and names each time they went by so that the crowd was aware of who was competing and how well they were doing.
Around 70 men and 40 women in the Seniors races, plus 30 in the Juniors event raced and completed one of toughest courses that they have ever seen, typical of the Dion National Snowshoe Championships. The relay race the next day was advertised as 2.5 kilometers per leg but it ended up being shortened to just a 4 x 1 kilometer to avoid the big hill – some racers ran as fast as 3:30 for their leg, a quick start-and-stop to contrast the long race the day before (47 minutes for the fastest snowshoer on the 10-kilometer course). The reception and awards shows were spectacular to match the great effort that organizers put into the event – there were also dozens of luxurious raffle prizes given away including all different brands of snowshoes.
Next year this big event will be held at the home of Dion Snowshoes and their trademark bright orange (and white) snowshoes and jackets, in Woodford, Vermont, with the town of Bennington hosting the events. The Vermont race course will be at around 2,400 feet – not as high as Bend’s Virginia Meissner Sno-Park’s 5,400 feet, but the remarkable views in and around Vermont’s Prospect Mountain surely will compete with Oregon’s. Although during the race there is no time for sight-seeing – competing for the top five spots and for age group awards will be on the minds of all as the USSSA (United States SnowShoe Association) continues on from its 13th to its 14th running of the Dion Snowshoes National Snowshoe Championships in the heart of Dion country.
Additional information and results of this race are available at http://www.snowshoeracing.com/national_championship13.htm.
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